Gender diversity in children’s books “What a beautiful prince!”

Jens Thiele: Jo im roten Kleid; © Peter Hammer Verlag
Jens Thiele: Jo im roten Kleid | Photo (detail): © Peter Hammer Verlag

Unusual family configurations, the relation to one’s own body, homosexual love – topics like these are not uncommon nowadays in books for teens. They are even addressed in some modern-day children’s books. But does such early exposure to these sensitive issues make sense?

Wilma is a lesbian. And she flirts unabashedly with Leonie. She is one of the heroines of Cornelia Funke’s series of books for teenagers called Die wilden Hühner(“The Wild Chickens”). There’s nothing with Wilma’s flirting in public – after all, she’s not alone in her sexual orientation. As a matter of fact, books for teens about “coming out” are not uncommon, and are supposed to help young people along on the road to adulthood.

And yet there are books for children still in primary school or even kindergarten that explore such subjects as gender confusion or homosexuality. But does such early exposure to these issues make sense in the first place? Organizations like Queerformat, an educational initiative started up in Berlin in 2010, work towards heightening awareness among specialized teaching staff at daycare centres, schools and youth centres and providing advanced training in gender diversity issues. Educationalist Manfred Berger likewise feels this form of sensitization is a must because even nursery school kids are confronted with variously configured relationships and diverse gender roles, hence the need to provide information and education about these issues at an early age. The way in which this education is handled in children’s books varies considerably.

Patchworks and rainbows: family diversity

For example, Alexandra Maxeiner and Anke Kuhl’s nonfiction picture book Alles Familie! Vom Kind der neuen Freundin vom Bruder von Papas früherer Frau und anderen Verwandten (“All in the Family! About Daddy’s ex-wife’s brother’s new girlfriend’s kid and other relatives”, 2010), which was nominated for the German Youth Book Award in 2011, runs through a whole bunch of unusual family configurations and shows that in our day and age they’re really not that unusual at all anymore – precisely because so many different ones now exist. The book also explores same-sex partnerships. The point is to familiarize children from the age of four with every possible configuration of single parents, even so-called “Regenbogenfamilien”, or LGBT same-sex parenting, with a helpful helping of humorous illustrations to boot. In the exposition of their reasoning for nominating the book, the German Youth Book Award committee explains: “As caricatural as it may be, the nonetheless serious treatment conveys to the child reader that every family is unique – whether noisy or discreet, lazy or bustling, uptight or laid-back.”

“So everyone will see me”: cracking gender roles wide open

Every family is unique, but so is every child. Many children’s book authors made the most of this uniqueness, cracking gender roles wide open, even reversing them. One book that goes to show that this reversal is not confined to portraying feisty, independently-minded girls or sensitive, soft-spoken boys is Jens Thiele’s Jo im roten Kleid (“Jo in the Red Dress”, 2004).

„Was würdest du machen, wenn du ein Junge wärst?“, heißt es da. „(…) Ich würde mir ein schönes Kleid anziehen …“ „Wie bitte?“ „Ja, ich würde mir das schönste Kleid meiner Mutter anziehen, das rote mit dem tiefen Ausschnitt.“ Im Zentrum steht Jo, der im Kleid seiner Mutter mit einer Umwelt konfrontiert wird, die ihm feindlich gesinnt ist. Jo allerdings bleibt sich selbst treu und das macht ihn stark. Es ist die Geschichte eines „Coming out“ – allerdings nicht für Jugendliche sondern für Kinder zwischen sechs und acht Jahren. Darüber hinaus vermittelt die Geschichte Mut zur Individualität – auch gegen festgefahrene Geschlechterrollen. And that, insists Karin Haller, director of the Institut für Jugendliteratur (Institute for Children’s Literature), is extremely important. For even if modern-day children’s books seldom ascribe traditional gender traits anymore and considerably blur the dividing lines between gender representations, the danger now is of slipping into another stereotype: that girls absolutely have to be tough, daring and witty, and boys have to have a sensitive, contemplative side. Haller wants there to be “variety of possibilities”, and that variety is explored in books like Jo im roten Kleid.

“It takes all kinds”: iconic penguin love

Occasionally, moreover, the subject of homosexuality is concretely broached in children’s books. The focus there is not on child role models, however, but on the parents, on subjects like marriage and the desire to have children – even in same-sex couples. And one species of protagonist is particularly striking in these books: namely penguins. Several recent books are about the relationship between two male penguins and their problems. The source thereof is a true story from the Central Park Zoo in New York, where two male penguins attempted to hatch a rock as if it were an egg and ended up adopting a real egg that a mixed-sex couple had given up on. The story of the chick that hatched from that egg, Tango, and her fathers is retold for children four years and up in Edith Schreiber-Wicke and Carola Holland’s picture book Zwei Papas für Tango (“Two Daddies for Tango”, 2006).

In 2012 two graduates of the Multimedia Art and Animation College at Spengergasse Polytechnic in Vienna, Barbara Müller and Tanja Strobl, developed similar material for children aged four and up in Florian und Florian. In this story, a married couple of penguins are planning to have an egg although everyone around them says it just isn’t possible for same-sex couples. Author Barbara Müller feels homosexuality should be treated in children’s books the same way other social issues are. After all, children are already marked by their experiences from an early age. The object of Florian und Florian, Müller explains, is for homosexuality to be accepted rather than being regarded as unnatural.

That can be accomplished most effectively by taking an easy-going approach to the matter, as in Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland’s König und König (“King and King”, 2001). Homosexuality is thematized here, not problematized. That’s why the prince, who is looking for a bride, gets to fall in love here not with the princess, but with her brother. And they all live happily ever after all the same.

Linda de Haan, Stern Nijland: König und König. Gerstenberg 2001
Alexandra Maxeiner, Anke Kuhl: Alles Familie. Klett Kinderbuch 2010
Barbara Müller, Tanja Strobl: Florian und Florian . 2012
Edith Schreiber Wicke: Zwei Papas für Tango. Thienemann 2006
Jens Thiele: Jo im roten Kleid. Peter Hammer Verlag 2004